April 28, 2019

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Coen Brothers
Stars: Tim Robbins, Paul Newman, Jennifer Jason Leigh

What it's about. Set in late 1958 in New York City. A big corporation named Hudsucker is raking in the dough, but that doesn't stop its President, Charles Durning, from jumping out the 44th (or is it the 45th?) floor to become sidewalk splatter.

Now what? Durning's big block of company stock is to be sold to the public, wresting control away from its board of directors, led by Paul Newman. Newman hatches a scheme to suppress the stock price by making greenhorn dimwit Tim Robbins the new President. Newman and company can then buy up the stock cheap, keep control, and make a killing.

But, because it is a movie, Robbins turns out to be more capable than anticipated. His hula hoop idea is a great success. Meanwhile, he is seduced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, a newspaper reporter working undercover to get the scoop on Robbins. Also because it is a movie, Leigh falls for Robbins, since he is a swell guy and all that.

How others will see it. The Coen Brothers were critical darlings by 1994, and expected The Hudsucker Proxy to be greeted primarily as a triumph. Instead, it sunk like a lead sinker. The film, which cost 30M to make, had a domestic gross of under 3M. The movie was also ignored by the three titans of the festival circuit: the Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTA.

Even today, the movie has only a 56% positive slate at Rotten Tomatoes. Well, not every Coen effort will have the reception of Fargo. The good news for The Hudsucker Proxy is that it has a respectable 73K user votes at imdb.com, and the user rating of 7.3 out of 10 is fairly high. And the user reviews are generally positive, e.g. "gets better with each subsequent viewing." One viewer asks, "did the title kill this movie?" And it does seem that the hula hoop was more aptly named than The Hudsucker Proxy.

How I felt about it. Like many Coen Brothers efforts, The Hudsucker Proxy is a whimsical and eccentric comedy. The moral, such as it is, is that all the conniving of Paul Newman leads to his ruin, while the good guy Tim Robbins wins because of (and not despite) his naiveté.

The Coen Brothers consider this a joke because, generally speaking, the naive are losers and the manipulators are winners. There are exceptions, such as Justin Bieber, but in the vast majority of cases, the cunning win and the sheep are fleeced.

Thus, the moral isn't a moral, but merely a happy ending intended to please audiences. That also explains why Jennifer Jason Leigh falls in love with Robbins. There is no emotional reason why she would, but it fulfills viewer expectations: the young lead must have a beautiful love interest, and Leigh is practically the only female character that delivers lines.

So, the ending is unashamedly contrived, but that is okay because it is a comedy. Robbins is like Inspector Clouseau, whose very incompetence often saves him. He is saved not only by Bill Cobbs/God in the clock tower, and by an angel in the form of Charles Durning, but because Robbins so stupid that he fails to deliver the Blue Letter to Paul Newman. Which would have, of course, caused Newman to promote himself to President and thus attain at once what he spends the entire film scheming to obtain, majority control of Hudsucker stock.

What are we to make of Robbins character? Is the Boy Wonder a dufus or not? He is a dufus with powerful friends. He does invent both the hula hoop and the frisbee, but only because the plot has him do so.

Since the moral is a transparent joke, and the characters are caricatures, the entertainment value in the movie comes from its retro setting: men's hats, ticker tape machines, elevator operators, etc. The Coen Brothers conclude, as with Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, O Brother, Where Art Thou? etc. that satire is best served in the American past, where mythology can account for the exaggerations.